OPINION | If Calgary wants to attract young people, it needs to start telling a new story

The sun doesn’t have to be setting on Calgary. In fact, I’m betting that it isn’t, given that I’m moving back this month.

City can grow and thrive, but not if it chooses business as usual

Young people are turning away from Calgary because of a lack of economic opportunities, which used to be the city’s most popular calling card. (Robson Fletcher)

This column is an opinion from Max Fawcett, a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine.

When it comes to measuring the health and vitality of a city, you could do a lot worse than looking around to see how many young people it has. After all, they're the red blood cells of the body politic, the ones who deliver the oxygen that help it thrive and grow.

They drive the creation of new businesses, support the development of new communities, and stimulate the cultural and social activities that underwrite their appeal. And if the latest data is any indication, Calgary is dangerously close to needing a transfusion. 

As the CBC's Robson Fletcher noted in a piece recently, the number of people in the city aged 19 to 24 actually went down by 5.5 per cent over the past decade. The ranks of those 65 to 74, on the other hand, swelled by 76 per cent, while those 55 to 64 increased by more than 50 per cent.

Part of this shift can be explained by broader demographic trends, as baby boomers — the largest generation of the 20th century — age into their golden years.

A big part of it can't, though, since the number of people 19 to 24 is still rising in places like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. 

A lack of opportunities

So why are they turning away from Calgary? In part, it's a reflection of the lack of economic opportunities, which used to be the city's most popular calling card.

While growing tech sectors elsewhere continue to attract younger Canadians, Calgary's oil and gas industry is doing the opposite.

"Young people aren't going into the oil and gas business because of the ups and downs," industrial and organizational psychologist Laura Hambley told the JWN Energy news site last year. "This recession has been brutal."

There's also the fact that oil and gas doesn't have the same cachet as tech enjoys.

The leadership in the oil and gas industry is mostly populated by baby boomers, many of whom still struggle with the issue of climate change. (CBC)

Canadian tech leaders like Slack's Stewart Butterfield or Shopify's Tobi Lutke are at once relatable and inspiring, and they share many of the values that younger Canadians pride themselves on having.

The leadership cohort in the oil and gas industry, in contrast, is mostly populated by baby boomers, many of whom still struggle with the issue of climate change and Canada's role in addressing it. 

And while talk of separation and independence might appeal to older Albertans, it has far less purchase with younger ones — and almost none with those considering moving to Alberta from other parts of the country.

"Think of your angry uncle," former Alberta Climate Change deputy minister Eric Denhoff wrote in a piece last year.

"Did anything ever make him happy? Didn't think so, but he's still in the family, still coming to Thanksgiving dinner and still grumpy. That's probably the best Alberta and Canada can hope for in the next few years."

Sunrises, not sunsets

Most important, perhaps, is the fact that young people are drawn by their very nature to sunrises, not sunsets. That's why they continue to flock to the tech sector, and the cities that play host most effectively to it.

And while the oil and gas industry will still support plenty of well-paid jobs for decades to come, the sun is much lower on its horizon. 

But the sun doesn't have to be setting on Calgary. In fact, I'm betting that it isn't, given that I'm moving back to Calgary this month. And while I can't add to the city's number of young people, I can offer some insight into the things that are bringing me back — and that might bring them back, too.

The sun is much lower on its horizon, but it doesn’t have to be setting on Calgary. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

In spite of the economic pain that's clearly being felt by so many people, I'm still drawn to the sense of opportunity and spirit of self-determination that drew me to Calgary the first time.

The city still has the same combination of affordability and livability that you can't find in bigger urban centres any more. And the sense of community in Calgary remains one of the strongest I've ever experienced in my life. 

Time for a new story

I readily admit that my affection for the city doesn't always resonate with the people who ask me about why I'm moving there. And if Calgary wants to win them over, or at least pique their interest, it has to do more than hope for a return to higher oil prices. It needs to start telling stories about other kinds of prosperity that are possible in Calgary.

Yes, pipelines are important, but so, too, are businesses that have absolutely nothing to do with the energy sector. And when their signal gets drowned by the noise of pipeline rallies and anti-Greta protests, it makes it difficult for them to raise money, recruit talent and find new customers. 

The energy sector and its champions in government, meanwhile, have to embrace a more expansive vision of the word "energy."

The Canadian Energy Centre, which has been enthusiastically trumpeting the virtues of Alberta's oil and gas industry ever since it was created, remained conspicuously silent when it came to a $500-million investment in a new solar facility in Vulcan.

A photovoltaic panel array on the roof of the Telus Spark science centre. The energy sector and its champions in government have to embrace a more expansive vision of the word 'energy,' says writer Max Fawcett. (Telus Spark)

If Alberta is going to profit from the transition to a lower-carbon economy — and attract the young talent it will need to make that happen — its leadership will have to start treating solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy like an opportunity instead of an obstacle.  

Calgary can choose to grow. It can choose to thrive. But it can't do either of those things if it chooses business as usual.

Rather than doubling down on things like urban sprawl and car culture, it needs to acknowledge that young people today live different lives than they did a generation ago — and have different priorities as well.

That means providing more access to transit, more kinds of amenities, and more opportunities for culture and recreation. It means having it all in close proximity to where they live and work. And it means understanding how they want to work, and why they might not want to work for the same companies and industries as their parents.

A city of and for the future

Most of all, it means trying to build a city of and for the future, rather than reinforcing the foundations of the one that's already there.

Because, as young Calgarians are saying, both with their words and their actions, that one is already crumbling under their feet.

But if Calgary starts laying down the cornerstones for a city that meets their needs?

Build it, and they will come — and come back.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Max Fawcett is the former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines. He worked in the Alberta government’s climate change office between 2017 and 2019.


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